Wednesday, December 16, 2009

5 (or so) Questions with Bodine Schwerin - Part 2

Here is the second and final installment of Micah Riecker's interview with "Baby Knauer Speaks" author Bodine Schwerin.

9L: To continue my prying into the ways in which history affected the story: One aspect of historical fiction that I do see in the piece is that, though you bend historical fact, the major events of the story follow the major events in history. That is, we know the ending - that Baby Knauer will be a victim (as in your epigraph) - before we actually get there. Did that have an effect on the way you wrote the story? In other words, because you knew the ending, did it make writing this story different than other stories you've worked on?

BS: I love working with historical figures in my writing because in many ways they are ready-made characters. That sounds both horribly lazy and opportunistic, and I often vacillate between a fear of doing injustice to some long-dead person and being fairly certain that writing fiction gives me license to do pretty much anything I please, so long as it's in the name of a good story. One must be careful, which depending on your opinion of the matter is the lesson William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner teaches writers of "historical" fiction.

But from a practical standpoint, many aspects of history are open to interpretation and thus "fictionalization," especially the smaller details of events and the foibles and motivations of individuals, while elements like birthdays, appearances, hometowns, and basic life narratives are for the most part clearly established for many fascinating historical personages. (Even the obscured history of Baby Knauer provided some starting points to work with.) This presents an appealing break for a writer like myself who has a god-awful time figuring out these more mundane aspects of characters and would much rather get to work on the cool stuff - like what a disfigured, talking baby might say, or how an ancient king would react to a prophet pig. If something from the historical record, like a job or moustache, doesn't fit what is necessary for the story, I can change it (after carefully considering the consequences), but it's so nice to have something concrete to start with. It also helps that, like you say, I knew the ending, though not as much as having character frameworks to take advantage of.

With "Baby Knauer Speaks," it was of course clear the baby would die at the hands (or on the order) of Karl Brandt. To change this in any way would be a gross injustice (even in the name of a good story) obviously for the baby but also because it would let Brandt off the hook. But what was interesting was that, when I got to the end, the tragedy was less about Brandt killing Baby Knauer than about Brandt silencing it ("him" historically, but I'll stick with sexless pronoun when referencing the story). As we've discussed, the baby does seem to achieve some form of self awareness at the story's conclusion. Yet, this is the moment - when the baby effectively separates from the narrative of history and becomes an individual, with an individual story about to be told - that outside forces conspire to silence it. I'm not sure what exactly all this means in a larger sense. Is it part of the tragedy of being human - that even as we cling to our individual lives/stories we are being always swept up into a great pattern of history in which we aren't individuals but archetypes, the same stories told different ways, different stories told the same way? Is this even a tragedy? Perhaps, like you suggest, this offers some kind of justice in the case of Baby Knauer. I'm getting in over my head here.

Getting back to your original question, I was going to say that working with history did indeed lead me to writing this story differently from others I have attempted, but now I think not. I had an ending dictated to me by the events of the past, but even though I knew precisely where I had to finish up, the process still yielded a different result - subtly so, perhaps, but still different. I can't think of a single story I've written that has ended up where I thought it would, even in those cases where the ending was all I knew when I began. So I suppose there wasn't really all that much different between writing this story and others of mine, other than having some of the tedious character development already done for me.

9L: You seem like you draw inspiration from a number of sources (TV being one). What are you reading right now?

BS: I've heard this is the case with many writers, but I'm typically reading on two levels at any time. The first is just anything I happen to want to read at the moment; right now I'm plowing through Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (I'm well behind everyone else in reading this, I know), which I'm loving for its structure and sheer immensity of its imagination. On the second level, however, is the rather repetitive reading I do to maintain a level of inspiration and motivation for my writing. For this, I am always reading and rereading some combination of the following: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Borges' Collected Fictions, and anything at all by Rilke, as translated by Stephen Mitchell. Calvino and Borges because they are fabulists, I suppose, but there's a certain tone they strike that wakes up my creativity, not to mention the wonderful breadth of their imaginations. Rilke is, to me, the consummate writer; I could go on about the beauty of his work, but it's his courage that I find inspirational for my own writing, as I'm sure it has for many others.

9L: As far as Baby Knauer, we've talked a little about how research did and didn't play a role. Any research going on right now?

BS: The collection I'm still working on centers on miracles, so much of my research for that has focused on hagiographies, particularly those in The Golden Legend, a two-volume collection. Just as with "Baby Knauer Speaks," I've been trying to pair up miraculous elements from the lives of saints (bilocation, corpses navigating their way to their chosen place of burial, Rip Van Winkle-esque thousand-year slumbers) with characters plucked from history or made up entirely.

So The Golden Legend is a great source for the miraculous, and for the characters, I've focused on people in situations of remarkable suffering, because saintliness and suffering are inseparable. (This idea I find validated in E.M. Cioran's Tears and Saints, which I reread from time to time to keep the philosophical core of the collection in mind.) To find inspiration for the characters, I've researched the obvious major tragedies in history (such as the Holocaust in the case of "Baby Knauer Speaks," or more recently Hurricane Katrina) and less obvious ones (women murdered in China so as to be married off as "'ghost brides" for men who died unwed), as well as more personal tragedies, such as the simple death of a child, or a loss of a parent, or the onset of terrible illness, and the infinite circumstances in which any of these may occur. For these latter cases, I simply scan the news online, where there is sadly no shortage of inspiration for characters who suffer greatly. Fortunately, I currently have enough material to fill out the collection, so I don't have to actively engage in that grim work for the moment. Any research I'm currently conducting is just to fill in little gaps in knowledge I need for the stories, like common names for Bosnian Muslims, the geography of New Orleans, or the symptoms of Legionnaire's Disease.

"Baby Knauer Speaks" is featured in Ninth Letter, vol. 6, no. 1. Copies are available in our webstore.

Monday, December 14, 2009

5 (or so) Questions with Bodine Schwerin - Part 1

For this installment of 5 (or so) Questions, 9L staffer Micah Riecker interviews Bodine Schwerin, author of "Baby Knauer Speaks" from our current issue, vol. 6, no. 1

"Baby Knauer Speaks" tells the story of a disfigured newborn who delivers prophecies before being euthanized by the Nazis. They had so much to discuss that we're presenting the interview in two parts. Here is part 1. Enjoy.

9L: Did you sit down to write historical fiction? I hate genre-ing things but just as far as discussing writing process in the story. Did you sit down, knowing that you wanted to turn Baby Knauer into a prophet? 

BODINE SCHWERIN: I agree with your feelings toward trying to categorize any particular story into a genre, so I can't say I ever had any intention of writing historical fiction, or any other kind of fiction for that matter, other than, I suppose, "good fiction," which I define as "not boring." I once read an interview with Kelly Link, one of my favorite writers, and she said, "Stories come from an intersection of things. For some stories, you don't have so much as a starting place as a collision." About six years ago I was looking for material for an assignment I had given myself: to write stories that employ events or plot lines plucked from hagiographies - biographies of saints. I was reading various sources like The Golden Legend and came across the story of St. Rumwold, an infant saint who, as legend has it, lived for three days and during that time asked to be baptized and gave a sermon or two.

I thought it was a fun little nugget but had no idea what to do with it until a number of weeks later, when I caught the tail end of one of those History Channel documentaries on Nazi atrocities. The narrator made a brief reference to Baby Knauer, who became Hitler's test subject for the Nazi euthanasia program and was perhaps the first victim of the Holocaust. The idea immediately clicked in the form of the title: Baby Knauer Speaks. The story arose from that moment. At any time, I had no idea what would come from it, other than that Baby Knauer had something to say, and I had to figure out what that was.

I suppose you could say it is a piece of historical fiction because it features historical persons and some accurate elements of these persons' lives. Hitler, Hitler's father, King Herod, Werner Catel, Karl Brandt, and of course Baby Knauer himself (a boy, whose real name and background was relatively recently uncovered in sealed records - Gerhard Kretschmar, the severely disabled son of farmhands). And if you consider hagiographies as a form of history, which would be an interesting position, then there's that, too. But I never had any real intention of sticking to the historical facts unless they suited the needs of the story as it unfolded - and what the story needed were symbolic characters, not historical ones: Baby Knauer became sexless. Herr Knauer became a worker in the Public Health department and friends with Werner Catel. The "doctors" in charge of the baby's care assumed the names of Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, psychiatrist and lawyer and authors of the monstrous "Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life," a tract that gave inspiration to Hitler's euthanasia program.

It wasn't important to me for "Baby Knauer Speaks" to be historically accurate, other than a few grounding details to add realism to counter the surrealism that dominates the story. It was much more important that the heart of the story do Baby Knauer justice by conveying as much as possible, with my limited abilities, the depth of suffering the child (and those that came before him, and those that have followed) experienced, and how the fault of these children's fate lies with the adults who failed to protect and cherish them. "Baby Knauer Speaks" ultimately became an indictment of Baby Knauer's father, who for me represented a truly horrific failure of love and responsibility that I struggled to comprehend while writing the story.

As for the intent behind Baby Knauer being a prophet - there was none there, either, at least not initially. Through various drafts, the baby said all manner of things, but eventually it became clear to me that the Baby Knauer of the story was merely a name, a representative vessel for the suffering that preceded him and all that was to immediately follow; he seemed like a harbinger, a recorded message, a sign that not one of the adults who should have been his guardians could understand. So I had him tell stories, and over the course of many drafts those stories came to have common themes of suffering children and terrible fathers. These stories seem to foretell a repetition of history carried out by the Nazi euthanasia program, so in that sense, Baby Knauer is prophesying. But at the very end of the story, he seems to take on a bit of self-awareness, a sense of his own personal tragedy, and he is no longer a prophet but just a desperate, doomed soul, and his stories then seem to me like cryptic attempts to teach his father, mother, and doctors some lesson in love and responsibility, in compassion, so that he might experience this from them before he dies. But in the story, as in history, Baby Knauer is robbed of that opportunity. 

9L: I'm interested in what you said about Baby Knauer gaining self-awareness at the end of the piece. There's a really strange tension - strange meaning kick-ass - between Baby Knauer as a prophet and Baby Knauer as a human being.

BS: I think you're absolutely right, and that "strange tension" is the perfect way to describe it. By the time I was working on my final drafts of the story, I was conceiving Baby Knauer as little more than the flesh-and-blood equivalent of the device Hoche and Binding use to record the infant's stories. I imagined the baby as a tape recorder from God or whatever Greater Power had manipulated these events and crafted this message for Baby Knauer to deliver; Baby Knauer was in my mind basically a toy of Fate, which seemed to fit the historical reality of his life. And yet, even perhaps against my authorial will, the baby achieved a measure of humanity, a moment of reflection and perhaps regret, sadness. I was surprised by that but very glad for it.

Stay tuned for part 2 on Wednesday!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

the VOICE reading series

The last VOICE reading of the semester is tonight, Thursday, Dec. 3 at 7:30pm at the Krannert Art Museum. University of Illinois M.F.A. candidates Sara Gelston (poetry) and Aaron Burch (fiction) will read from their work, along with special guests from Bowling Green State University, Matt Bell, Callista Buchen, and Anne Valente.

The event is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

9L Holiday Sale

The holiday season is here and to celebrate we're having a sale! Ninth Letter is a great gift for friends, co-workers, family or even as a special treat for yourself. Here are the specials:

1. A 1-year subscription: $15 (regularly $21.95)
2. Buy a 1-year subscription for regular price and get 2 free back issues.
3. All back issues: $5

And you don't have to mess with parking or crowded malls to enjoy this sale. Just go to our webstore, choose your gifts, and enter the discount codes:

1. For the $15 1-yr subscription, enter code: HOLIDAYSUB
2. For the regular 1-yr subscription + 2 free back issues, enter code: HOLIDAYFREE2
3. For $5 back issues, enter code: HOLIDAYBACK5

The sale runs until December 24, so now is a great time to take advantage of these specials.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gary L. McDowell

9L poetry contributor (vol. 4, no. 1), Gary L. McDowell's new chapbook, They Speak of Fruit, is out now from Cooper Dillon.

Congrats Gary!Link

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Philip Graham live from Prarie Lights

Philip is reading tonight from his new book, The Moon Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City will be streamed live starting at 7pm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

new content @

The Ninth Letter website has been updated with cool new stuff! The Where We're At podcast features a conversation with Mike Freto, one of the founders of about the history and motivation behind starting the nonprofit organization.

The new Featured Artist is Cory Holding. Her video story "Bump" tells the story of a golfer who has just learned that the pain in his side is stage four melanoma. But that description barely begins to encompass what viewers experience in this piece. Here is a screencap from the video to give you an idea.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Philip Graham Reading Today

Philip Graham will be reading from his new book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, today at the Illini Union Bookstore. The event starts at 4:30 and is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Also, check out this wonderful article about Philip's book from The Chicago Tribune and a podcast of Philip's recent reading in Chattanooga.

UPDATE: Philip's reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City on Wednesday, November 18 will be streamed live starting at 7pm.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

NINTH LETTER presents Seth Fried and Chris Wiberg

Two authors from the current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 6, no. 1), Seth Fried and Chris Wiberg, will read from their work on Thursday, Nov. 5 (tomorrow) at 57th Street Books in Chicago. Start time is 6pm.

Seth Fried’s short stories have appeared twice in Ninth Letter, as well as in McSweeney’s, Missouri Review, One Story, and many other publications. His story in the current issue of Ninth Letter is an excerpt from Animalcula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.

Chris Wiberg, a former assistant editor at Ninth Letter, is a Chicago-based writer whose fiction has appeared recently in Folio and the North Atlantic Review. He received his MFA from the University of Illinois, and teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago's Graham School for General Studies. His short essay about Election Night 2008 appears in the current issue of Ninth Letter.

The event is free and open to the public. If you're in or around Chicago tomorrow, stop by and check it out. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

5 (or so) Questions with Bryan Furuness

Welcome to a new semi-regular feature on the 9L blog, 5 (or so) Questions. The concept is simple: we ask our contributors five or so questions about their work appearing in Ninth Letter. First up is Bryan Furuness, whose story "Man of Steel" can be found in the current issue (vol. 6, no. 1).

In "Man of Steel," ten-year-old Revie seeks solace in his imagination, and in his love of superheroes, after his mother abandons him and his father. Revie is convinced that he can avoid further heartbreak if he listens to his own internal warnings. Of course, they're not as easy to decipher as he first thought.

At one point in the story, Revie is remembering his mother before she left and says, “That was back when my father didn’t mind strangeness so much.” By the time we see Revie’s father in the story, he seems to fear what an active imagination could mean for his son’s well being. How did you decide on Revie’s particular strangeness?

BRYAN FURUNESS: While none of the events of this story are drawn from “real life,” I have to admit that the character of Revie is pretty much me as a kid, amplified only slightly. I was a spaz with an overgrown imagination and more than a few compulsions. Did I ever, like Revie, slam a dictionary onto my own head? No. Not that I remember. My compulsions weren’t so violent, but were (unfortunately) more public and embarrassing. Like my throat-singing period in middle school, for instance. For a while, I made these whale sounds in the back of my throat, believing that no one else could hear them until finally the kid next to me in Mrs. Moscowitz’s social studies class said, “Dude, would you cut that out? I’m trying to read.” And that’s when I found out I couldn’t stop.

9L: In a lot of ways, “Man of Steel” seems like a story that could only happen in the Midwest. You live in Indiana. Is it important for you to represent the Midwest in your fiction and particularly this story?

BF: In one of the more stinging passages from Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor lays into a group of writers at a conference. “With the exception of one story,” she says to these poor souls who’d sent her their stories before the conference, “there was practically no use of the local idiom . . . All the addresses on these stories were from Georgia or Tennessee, yet there was no distinctive sense of Southern life in them. A few place-names were dropped, Savannah or Atlanta or Jacksonville, but these could just as easily have been changed to Pittsburgh or Passaic without calling for any other alteration in the story. The characters spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set.”

I don’t know if this story could only have happened in the Calumet Region—after all, any kid anywhere could lose his mother and react in weird ways—but my hope is that the telling of this story, from the language to its “texture of existence,” as Miss O’Connor puts it, is purely of the region.

9L: One of the first things that struck me about “Man of Steel,” was the intimacy of the voice, which made it feel almost like a nonfiction piece at times. Did it take you time to find Revie’s voice or did it come easily?

BF: Well, nothing about writing comes easily for me. But I can say that voice is something I really like to think about and play with, and it's usually the first element of a story to come to me. That's how it worked with the Revie stories—but the voice that came to me first belonged to the mother. She’s got a sprawling imagination—way bigger than Revie’s—and she likes to make up games and stories, including Bible stories that she calls the lost episodes of Jesus Christ. I remember that I was driving along 465, the highway around Indianapolis, when her first lost episode popped into my head. “Growing up, Jesus and Lucifer were best friends. They went to the same school, where they both ran track. They made mostly B's. Lucifer could wing a baseball so fast only Jesus could catch it. They had that brooding look down cold. People called them two peas in a pod, brothers separated at birth, you know.” I was like, Eureka! Then I whipped across three lanes of traffic and parked in the EMERGENCY STOPPING ONLY area so I could write those words down on an old receipt before I lost them.
I just realized that I made it sound easy there, didn’t I? Like I take dictation from the schizzy voices in my head. So, okay, voices or story lines arrive like that about 1% of the time, but the rest of the time it’s a long, hard slog. A joyful, challenging, meaningful, long, hard slog.

9L: According to your contributor note, characters from “Man of Steel” are featured in your novel in progress, The Lost Episodes of Jesus Christ. Is it difficult to write stand-alone stories about characters that figure into a larger work? Will we get to see Revie as an adult in the novel?

BF: Yes, I MEANT to write stand-alone stories as satellites to the novel, as a way of showing how wild and unconventional and form-bendingly brilliant I am, and—oh, who am I kidding? The truth is that this mix is an accident of circumstances.

Initially, I set out to write a novel-in-stories. Deep into that project, I found a structural flaw that couldn’t be patched up, so I burned the whole thing down and started it over as a novel. What remains of that novel-in-stories are four or five orphaned pieces, including “Man of Steel,” that didn’t get re-integrated into the book.

In addition to those orphans, there are earlier Revie stories in my drawer, and chapters that I’ve since cut out of the novel. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the Lost Episodes has a lot of lost episodes. Which is fine as long as the whole project doesn’t tank, because that would make the bulk of this decade a lost episode of Bryan Furuness.

9L: I have to ask. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

BF: The power to finish this novel.

Kidding. Mostly. Unless you’re actually granting superpowers, in which case, call me.

If you asked Revie, or the twelve-year-old me, they’d pick invisibility. And then they’d camp out in the girl’s locker room, for the purpose of eavesdropping as much as ogling.

But me? The now-me? The power I really want is a little less creepy, and maybe a little more sad. At least once a day, I find myself wishing I had a magical remote that could pause time. Like, it would stop clocks and everyone would freeze. What would I do in that paused time? Boring adult stuff, mostly. Catch up on work. Lay waste to my inbox. Read. Nap. But maybe, after a while, I’d do a few Revie-like things, too, like stuffing odd things into people’s pockets, or arranging frozen people to make them kiss.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rob McCarthy in New Issue of One Story

"Stag," a story by former 9L staffer Rob McCarthy, is featured in the latest issue of One Story. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Book Round-Up

Check out these new books from 9L contributors:

In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation by Kurt Caswell (vol. 4, no. 2)

"An exquisitely written, consistently thoughtful, and engaging work . . . Its scrupulous personal honesty and research into the Navajos combine to produce a rich literary experience, as engrossing as a novel yet buoyed by the sense of a reliable observer bearing witness to what actually happened." - Phillip Lopate

Broken Sonnets by Kathleen Kirk (vol. 4, no. 1)
"...challenging, confrontational, and full of surprises….The collection addresses what breaks us and then asserts that “to be broken is to be whole.” Wielding this contradiction, Kirk stares down fear and dares to be sexy!” - Joyce Wilson

From the Fever World by Jehanne Dubrow (vol. 5, no. 2)

"Composed in the voice of the imaginary Yiddish poet Ida, these poems are subtle, musically complex, and frequently startling in their immediacy, violence, and grace." - Kevin Prufer

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (vol. 5, no. 1)

"Butler is an original force who is fearless with form... The design is appropriately disarming, an apt part of the overall barrage by this inventive and deeply promising young author." —Time Out New York

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Carr Reading Series - Alumni Authors

The Carr Reading Series wraps up for the semester with Illinois alumni authors, Mike Czyzniejewski and Matthew Frank.

When: Today, October 14 at 4:30pm
Where: Illini Union Bookstore, 2nd floor (Author's Corner)

The event is free and open to the public, so get out of the rain and listen to some great poetry and fiction.

Also, check out Smile Politely's interviews with Mike Czyzniejewski and Matthew Frank.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Illinois Alumni Authors Week

UIUC alums, Michael Czyzniejewski and Matthew Frank, are on campus this week as part of Illinois Alumni Authors Week. They've been visiting classes and participating in craft and career talks with students. Today, Czyzniejewski, editor of the Mid-American Review, will be part of an editing talk with 9L's editor, Jodee Stanley at 4:00pm in room 69 of the English Building.

All of this leads up to the main event tomorrow when Czyzniejewski and Frank read at the Illini Union Bookstore (Author's Corner, 2nd floor), 4:30pm, as part of The Carr Reading Series.

If you're in or around Urbana-Champaign tomorrow, please stop by. As always, The Carr Reading Series is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Quickies Reading Series

If you're in or around Chicago tonight, check out the Quickies reading series featuring, among others, 9L contributor, Blake Butler (vol. 5, no. 1) and UIUC MFA candidate, Aaron Burch.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Pleasures of Saudade

Philip Graham week continues! Head on over to The Morning News to check out Philip's article about Portuguese music, "The Pleasures of Saudade."

Also, don't forget that Philip's tour to promote his new book, The Moon, Come to Earth, starts next week. Check out the tour dates.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Carr Reading Series

We're breaking in with a special announcement. Television writer/producer, Bernard Lechowick is reading today as part of the Carr Reading Series.

When: Today, October 7, at 4:30
Where: Illini Union Bookstore, 2nd Floor (Author's Corner)

This event is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Philip Graham Tour Dates

It's Philip Graham week on the 9L blog and rightfully so. McSweeney's has posted Philip's tour dates in support of his new book. The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon. The tour dates, locations, and times are conveniently listed below. Good times are guaranteed.

Tuesday, October 13
Slonim Living Room
Sarah Lawrence College
6:30 p.m.

Friday, October 16
Rifkind Room, 6/316
The City College of New York
160 Convent Avenue
6 p.m.

Thursday, October 22
Richardson Library, Room 300
DePaul University (Lincoln Park Campus)
2350 N. Kenmore
6 p.m.

Friday, October 30
Meacham Writers' Workshop
University Center, Raccoon Mountain Room
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
7 p.m.

Thursday, November 9
Illini Union Bookstore
South Wright Street
University of Illinois
4:30 p.m.

Wednesday, November 18
Prairie Lights Bookstore
15 South Dubuque Street
Iowa City, Iowa
7 p.m.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Interviews with Philip Graham

Ninth Letter's fiction editor, Philip Graham, has a new book coming out in November, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon. To gear up for the release of the book, check out the Write the Book and Oronte Churm interviews with Philip.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Stacey Levine

The Carr Reading Series continues today with fiction writer Stacey Levine. Here are the details:

When: Monday, October 5 at 4:30
Where: Illini Union Bookstore, Author's Corner (2nd floor)

The Carr Reading Series is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lucie Brock-Broido

The Carr Reading Series continues today with poet Lucie Brock-Broido. Here are the details:

When: Tuesday, September 29 at 4:30
Where: Illini Union Bookstore, Author's Corner (2nd floor)

The Carr Reading Series is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

VOICE Reading Series

The VOICE reading series kicks off tonight, Thursday, September 24 at 7:30pm at the Krannert Museum of Art.

UIUC MFA candidates Brian Kornell (fiction), Sara McWhorter (poetry), and Micah Riecker (fiction) will read from their work.

This event is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

new content @

Head on over to the Ninth Letter website to check out the new Where We're At podcast of Blake Butler's "The Gown from Mother's Stomach" from our Spring/Summer 2008 issue. Also, the Featured Artist section has been updated with "Birthday Poem For My Grandmother": an Interpretation Through Dance.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

John T. Edge

The Carr Reading Series kicks off tomorrow with the very cool John T. Edge. Here are the details:

When: Wednesday, September 16 at 4:30
Where: Illini Union Bookstore, Author's Corner (2nd Floor)

Be sure to catch John T. Edge's interview on WILL-AM's Focus 580 tomorrow morning (10:06 start time). You can call in with questions.

Check out the Smile Politely interview with John T. Edge.

The Carr Reading Series is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards

Poet and UIUC creative writing professor, Janice Harrington, is one of the winners of The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards. The awards will be presented to the recipients on September 24 in New York City.

Congratulations Janice!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Chaon & Betts

Two more 9L contributors have new books. Check them out!

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (vol. 4, no. 2).

"...Mr. Chaon succeeds in both creating suspense and making it pay off, but “Await Your Reply” also does something even better. Like the finest of his storytelling heroes, Mr. Chaon manages to bridge the gap between literary and pulp fiction with a clever, insinuating book equally satisfying to fans of either genre." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Arc & Hue by Tara Betts (vol. 5, no. 2)

"Tara Betts deftly crafted stanzas are infused with a relentless lyricism and a Chi-town girl's sensibility. This debut collection solidifies her status as a defiant and singular voice, joyous indication of a fresh new direction in poetry." - Patricia Smith

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Red Dot Design Awards

We're very pleased and proud to report that the current issue of Ninth Letter, vol 6, no. 1, has won a Red Dot Design Award in the editorial category.

If you haven't seen the new issue and the new design, get your copy today!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

9L Reading Period Now Open!

It's that time of year, Ninth Letter is accepting submissions again. Check out our guidelines and visit our online submission manager to submit electronically. Send us your best fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

We look forward to reading your work!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

NEA Fellowships for Literary Translations

The National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded fellowships to 16 literary translators. We are very happy to report that Brian Henry is one of these recipients. Brian Henry's translation of a poem by Ales Steger will appear in our next issue (vol. 6, no. 2). The grant is to support his translation of Steger's essay collection, Berlin, from Slovenian.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Ninth Letter at P&W's Lit MagNet

Ninth Letter's new design gets noted in Poets & Writers Sept/Oct. issue as part of their regular Literary MagNet news round up. Also featured in this issue of P&W is an interview with Martin Riker, Associate Director of U of I's Dalkey Archive Press.

Have YOU seen our new look? Get your copy of our Spring/Summer 2009 issue today!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eggers & Butler

We love passing on good news and two fiction contributors from our first issue (spring/summer 04), Dave Eggers and Robert Olen Butler, have new books. Check them out.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is available now.

"...what Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction." - Timothy Egan, The New York Times

Hell by Robert Olen Butler will be released on Sept. 1.

"No writer in America today can be said to surpass Butler in the eating-his-cake-and-having-it-too category: He's literary and entertaining, serious and funny. Within his clear and fluent narratives, there usually nestles complexity, if you care to look for it." - Chauncey Mabe

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

New Book Round-Up

Check out these new books from 9L contributors:

The Signal by Ron Carlson (vol. 1, no. 2 & vol. 5, no. 1).

"The Signal takes us into terrain that’s stunning and terrible. In doing so, it becomes both an elegy to a broken marriage and a heart-stopping, suspenseful thriller. It’s a difficult journey, but relax: with Ron Carlson, you really are in expert hands." - Jennifer Gilmore, The New York Times.

Tryst by Angie Estes (vol. 6, no. 1).

"Gleeful and gorgeous, delighted by puns and other wordplay (including words from French, Latin and Italian), Estes’s fast-paced free verse, rich with internal rhyme, takes rightful pride in the beauties it flaunts and explains." - Stephen Burt, The New York Times

Fugue State by Brian Evenson. The collections contains "A Pursuit," which was originally published in Ninth Letter's vol. 2, no. 2 issue.

"In his new collection, Fugue State, Evenson's stories most often serve as detective-style investigations into the horror of everyday speech. His characters cling to sentences, phrases and words with the intensity that usually accompanies unrequited love." - Ross Simonini, The Los Angeles Times

Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep (vol. 4, no. 2).

"Waldrep’s title denotes an antique keyboard instrument with 24, or many more, keys per octave. Notoriously hard to play, such instruments made subtle and challenging music, with notes a conventional score could not include. Waldrep’s sometimes bewildering, often exciting prose poems make their own unconventional music, replete with slippages, repetitions, suggestions." - Stephen Burt, The New York Times

Monday, August 03, 2009

Printer's Ball Interviews

We had a great time at Printer's Ball. Thanks to Adam Levin for representing 9L in the Literary Death Match! Amy Guth interviewed various editors at the event, including our very own Jodee Stanley, for Chicago Subtext.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Printer's Ball/Literary Death Match

We're off to Chicago today for Printer's Ball. Time, location, and all that good stuff is below:

Ludington Building
1104 South Wabash Avenue
5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Admission to the Printers’ Ball is free and open to all ages.

Stop by to pick up free copies of many wonderful publications, including Ninth Letter, and for Opium Magazine's Printer's Ball episode of Literary Death Match. Adam Levin (vol.1, #1) is representing Ninth Letter with his unstoppable fiction skills.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

9L Yard Sale - Final Days

The 9L Yard Sale ends on Friday, July 31, so only a few days are left to get these great deals:

1) Buy the new issue and get 1 free back issue of your choice.
2) Buy a one-year subscription and get 2 free back issues of your choice.
3) All back issues, $5 each.

Head on over to the Ninth Letter webstore and pick an option:
1) Add the vol. 6, no. 1 issue plus 1 back issue of your choice to the shoppingcart, then enter code: FREEISSUE1
2) Add a 1-year subscription plus any 2 back issues to the cart, then enter code: FREEISSUE2
3) Add as many back issues as you want to the cart, then enter code: BACK5

As always, thanks for stopping by and we appreciate your support!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Printer's Ball Literary Death Match

Don't forget that if you're in the Chicago area to stop by Printer's Ball on Friday, July 31. Time, location, and all that good stuff is below:

Ludington Building
1104 South Wabash Avenue
5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Admission to the Printers’ Ball is free and open to all ages.

There will be free copies of many wonderful publications, including Ninth Letter!

Another excellent reason to stop by is Opium Magazine's Printer's Ball episode of Literary Death Match. Adam Levin (vol.1, #1) will be representing Ninth Letter with his unstoppable fiction skills.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dalkey Archive Interview

The Los Angeles Times interviewed Dalkey Archive Press publisher and our U of I colleague, John O'Brien, about how the Press acquires books, their mission, the state of publishing today, and much more. Follow the links below to read the two part interview.

Part I

Part II

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Printers' Ball 2009

If you're in the Chicago area, don't miss this amazing event! Free copies of dozens of fantastic publications, including Ninth Letter!

Fifth Annual Printers’ Ball

Ludington Building
1104 South Wabash Avenue
5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Admission to the Printers’ Ball is free and open to all ages.

Founded by Poetry magazine with other independent Chicago literary organizations, the Printers’ Ball is an annual celebration of print culture, featuring thousands of magazines, books, and broadsides available free of charge; live readings and music; letterpress, offset, and paper-making demonstrations; and much more. This year’s Printers’ Ball is co-produced with Columbia College Chicago and the Center for Book & Paper Arts, and is set to take place in the landmark Ludington Building, former home to the American Book Company. Select events during the Printers’ Ball are being recorded for Chicago Public Radio’s Chicago Amplified.

Sneak previews of Printers' Ball publications, preparations, and secret invitations are available at the official Printers' Ball blog, Chicago Poetry Calendar:

Major collaborators for the fifth annual Printers’ Ball are the Alternative Press Center, the Center for Book & Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, Chicago Amplified, Chicago Underground Library, CHIRP (Chicago Independent Radio Project), MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Newcity, Opium Magazine, Poetry magazine, Poetry Foundation, and the Student Affairs Offices of Columbia College Chicago. The Printers’ Ball extends special gratitude to Louis Glunz Beer, Inc., and Lagunitas, Hofbrau, Chimay, and Founders breweries for their generous support of the evening’s festivities.

More than 1,500 people annually attend what has become one of the largest celebrations of print culture in the country. This year, for the first time ever, the Printers’ Ball features publishers outside of Chicago, showcasing more than 200 local, national, and international literary organizations and the various ways they bring print to life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

9L Yard Sale

The 9L yard sale continues until July 31, so there is still time to take advantage of these great deals:

1) Buy the new issue and get 1 free back issue of your choice.
2) Buy a one-year subscription and get 2 free back issues of your choice.
3) All back issues, $5 each.

Head on over to the Ninth Letter webstore and pick an option:
1) Add the vol. 6, no. 1 issue plus 1 back issue of your choice to the shoppingcart, then enter code: FREEISSUE1
2) Add a 1-year subscription plus any 2 back issues to the cart, then enter code: FREEISSUE2
3) Add as many back issues as you want to the cart, then enter code: BACK5

Thanks for stopping by and don't forget to tell your friends.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ninth Letter Design Kudos

Congrats to our awesome designers: Ninth Letter volume 5 no. 1 and no. 2 were both selected to appear in Print Magazine's 2009 Regional Design Annual. Print is a bimonthly magazine about visual culture and design, dedicated to showcasing the extraordinary in design on and off the page. Their Regional Design Annual is the most comprehensive annual survey of graphic design in the United States.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

9L Summer Yard Sale

What’s our favorite thing about summer, other than barbecues and fireworks? Yard sales. To celebrate the release of our new Spring/Summer 09 issue (vol. 6, no. 1), we’re having a yard sale. Everyone loves a deal and we have 3 darn good ones for you:

1) Buy the new issue and get 1 free back issue of your choice.
2) Buy a one-year subscription and get 2 free back issues of your choice
3) All back issues, $5 each

To make this yard sale even better, you don’t even have to go outside in the heat. Simply go to the Ninth Letter webstore and pick an option:

1) Add the vol. 6, no. 1 issue plus 1 back issue of your choice to the shopping
cart, then enter code: FREEISSUE1

2) Add a 1-year subscription plus any 2 back issues to the cart, then enter code:

3) Add as many back issues as you want to the cart, then enter code: BACK5

Stop by the webstore to check out the sale and enjoy the summer with some pretty cool stories, essays, and poems. Tell your friends!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ismail Kadare wins the Prince of Asturias Award

Ismail Kadare, one of the world's greatest novelists, and a former Ninth Letter contributor (issue #4, fall/winter 2005), has won Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Award in Letters. Kadare is also the recipient of the International Booker Prize, among many other recognitions of his work. The Albanian writer is a master at depicting the fear, paranoia and illogic engendered by totalitarian political systems.

Ninth Letter excerpted a chapter from Kadare's then-forthcoming novel The Successor, and here is a chilling moment from that excerpt, when the architect charged with designing and building the dictator's new home makes an unsettling discovery as he reviews his finished creation:

"Nothing could have been more terrifying to the architect than the sight of that door. It had been fitted by someone else, without his having been informed; but that would not save him from having to answer for it if any problems arose. He would have preferred not to know, to have never known about it, but bad luck had deemed otherwise."

Oronte Churm Raffle/Featherproof Mini-Books

To celebrate the release of his new novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, John Griswold aka Oronte Churm (Vol. 5, No. 2) is raffling off Southern Illinois themed prizes, including, a $25 Amazon gift card, Folksongs of Illinois, A Southern Illinois Album, and much more. Head on over to the Oronte Churm blog for more details on the prizes and how to enter the contest. Good luck!

If you're looking for more of John's work, check out "The Stork," a free mini-book from Featherproof Books. Jodee mentioned these a few weeks back in her Short Story Month post about Jill Summers (Vol. 4, No. 2). The mini-books are incredibly fun. Download, print, and follow the simple instructions to put them together. Featherproof just released new mini-books from 9L contributors Joe Meno (Vol 3, No. 2) and Blake Butler (Vol 5, No. 1).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Good news!

Congratulations to Carolyn Alessio and Adrian Matejka, who recently received Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards for their work appearing in Ninth Letter's volume 5. Carolyn's essay "Meet Marisol" appeared in our vol. 5 #1, and Adrian's poem "Babel by Foot" appeared in vol. 5 #2.

Also congratulations to K.G. Schneider, whose essay "The Outlaw Bride" (vol. 5 #2) was recently selected for the 2009 Best American Nonrequired Reading.

John Griswold's first novel, Democracy of Ghosts, was published by Wordcraft of Oregon. John's Were We're At "Microgeoraphies" appeared in Vol. 5 #2. Congratulations!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Verse Daily 3

Verse Daily is featuring another poem from the Spring/Summer 09 issue today, Bruce Snider's "A Great Whirring." Thanks, Verse Daily!

The new issue features outstanding poetry and prose from Oliva Bustion, Geri Doran, Bryan Furuness, J. Nicholas Geist, Travis Hessman, Mary Kiolbasa, Brian Oliu, Tomaz Salamun, and many others. In other words, great summer reading!

If you haven't seen our new bus/beach/poolside friendly format, here is a comparison between the new Spring/Summer 09 issue and the Spring/Summer 08 issue.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Verse Daily 2

Verse Daily is featuring Angie Estes' poem, "It Is Virtually Without Thinkness And Has Almost," from the Spring/Summer 09 issue today.

If you haven't done so already, check out the new, redesigned, Spring/Summer o9 issue of Ninth Letter. In addition to the great poetry, we have wonderful prose from Margot Livesey, Seth Fried, Bodine Schwerin, Kim Adrian, Nicholas Delbanco, Andre Perry, and many others.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Verse Daily

Olivia Clare's poem, "The Widdershins Garden," from the Spring/Summer 09 issue is up at Verse Daily. Check it out!

Monday, June 15, 2009

More New Books!

Three contributors from 9L's new Spring/Summer 09 issue have new books:

Lawrence Sutin's novel, When We Go into the Water, is out from Sarabande Books. An excerpt from the book appears in the Spring/Summer 09 issue.

"...Sutin has written a novel of such sheer audacity and delight it leaves the reader dizzy. No small part of its pleasure is that it manages to be so many things at once––a tour de force of compaction, outrageously sprawling, epic and intimate, with the velocity of a bullet train that stops to inspect a wildflower." - Mary Ruefle

Robin Hemley, most recently a 9L poetry contributor, has a new nonfiction book, Do-Over!, from Little, Brown & Co.

Do-Over! is one of the funniest, wisest, most perfectly observed books I've ever read. Robin Hemley possesses a keen insight into the all-too-human wish to rectify our past mistakes. He also knows that we are better for having made them."-Bernard Cooper

Red Hen Press published Brendan Constantine's poetry collection, Letters to Guns, which is available now.

"Brendan Constantine will offer you something you don't know, in his astonishing debut book, Letters To Guns. Not since James Tate have we seen a poet so inventive or voracious in topic, in spirit and in imagination." - Elena Karina Byrne

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bakeless Prize

Kim Dana Kupperman (Spring/Summer 2007) won the 2009 Katherine Nason Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction for her manuscript titled, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Interior. Graywolf Press will publish the book and we'll keep you updated on the release date.

Congratulations, Kim!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Writers Nudging the World

For the past two years, former Ninth Letter contributor Yann Martel (first issue; spring/summer 2004) has been on a mission to offer helpful elucidation of the world of books to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper--a politician enamored of cuts in funding for the arts who, in Yann's words, "fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts. But he must have moments of stillness.

"For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister.”

Prime Minister Harper has been sent a lovely little library of works by Marcus Aurelius, Flannery O'Connor, Northrop Frye, Kafka, Rilke, Orwell, Tolstoy, and Borges, plus a couple of graphic novels--Mauss by Art Speigelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi--and a sprinkling of Gilgamesh and the Bhagavad Gita. And so on. So far, though, the very busy prime minister has declined to respond to the bounty of these gifts. However, all of Yann Martel's accompanying letters are available at What is Stephen Harper Reading? and you could do worse than spend a few hours of your life nosing through these delicious, eloquent missives. Here is Yann's introduction to his take on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:

"In an interview some years ago Mavis Gallant mentioned an operation she underwent. She awoke from general anaesthesia in a state of mental confusion. For several minutes she couldn’t remember any details of her identify or of her life, not her name or her age or what she did, not where she was nor why she was there. An amnesia that was complete—except for this: she knew she was a woman and that she was thinking in English. Inextricably linked to the faintest glimmer of consciousness were those two identity traits: sex and language.

"Which says how deep language goes. It becomes part of our biology. Our lungs need and are made for air, our mouths and stomachs need and are made for nutrition; our ears and noses can hear and smell and, lo, there are things to be heard and smelled. The mind is the same: it needs and is made for language, and, lo, there are things to be said and understood."

Or try this lovely passage from his letter about Blackbird Singing, a collection of lyrics and poems by Paul McCartney:

"A song’s lyrics, I realized, are inseparable from its melody. The melody supplies the lift, suspending one’s disbelief and cynicism or giving one permission to entertain the forbidden, while the lyrics supply the in, inviting one to compare one’s experience of life with what is being said in the song, or, even better, inviting one to sing along. The possibility of listening intelligibly and of singing along are essential to a song’s appeal, because both involve the direct, personal participation of the listener. This participation, the extent to which one can mesh one’s life and dreams with a song, explains why something so short—most of the Beatles’ early songs are less than two minutes long—can go so deep so quickly. That’s the beguiling illusion of a great song: it speaks to each of us individually, and with a magnetic voice, and so we listen intently, instantly drawn into an inner dream world. Who hasn’t been moved to the core by a song, eyes closed and body shuddering with emotion? In that state, we address feelings we might be too shy to deal with in plain speech—raw, hungering lust, for example—or ones that cut deep but are so mundane we are embarrassed to talk about them: loneliness, yearning, heartbreak."

Stephen Harper owes Yann Martel--so far--57 letters of thanks in response. Clearly, the man wasn't raised right. His loss, but our gain!


More successful in his nudging of the world is Robin Hemley, Ninth Letter's first trifecta author, as he has contributed non-fiction (first issue; spring/summer 2004), fiction (issue 5; spring/summer 2006) and now poetry (current issue; spring/summer 2009). Recently, Robin wrote for McSweeney's a dispatch from Manilla, "The Great Book Blockade of 2009," about an illegal embargo of foreign books by corrupt Filipino customs officials trolling for bribes, a blockade flying in the face of international law.

Something about Robin's post struck a chord of multiplying harmonics among that country's concerned citizens, and the ensuing protests and media attention actually caused President Gloria Arroyo to get involved. You can read all about it here in this article from the Far Eastern Economic Review, "Notes from a Blockade Runner," which ends with this quote from Robin:

"As I write this, I’ve just heard from a friend that President Arroyo has lifted the book blockade and that effective immediately, there will be no taxes on imported books. Together, Filipino book lovers have performed what I consider a miracle in less than a month’s time.

"As for me, I’m floored that my original McSweeney’s piece actually effected positive change. I’m not accustomed to this. I’m accustomed to the usual things that haunt most other writers: creditors, editors, and the assorted hobgoblins of creativity. I love introspective and imaginative writers, such as Proust and Kafka, but I reserve special admiration for writers who try (but most often fail, despite noble efforts) to shake things up in the world beyond the writing desk. And while it’s the collective efforts of a group of concerned citizens of the Philippines (bloggers, journalists, and ordinary book lovers) who deserve the laurels for their efforts, I doubt I’ll ever think again that what I write or say can’t possibly make a difference in our troubled but still repairable world."

Bravo, Robin Hemley! Perhaps you too should write a letter to Stephen Harper!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

9L @ Printers Row

9L will be in Chicago June 6 & 7 for Printers Row Lit Fest! You can find us in the University of Illinois tent (location K1-3). We'll have Printers Row specials on back issues, subscriptions, and the stunning brand new Spring/Summer 09 issue.

The following 9L contributors will be giving readings and participating on various Printers Row panels: Carolyn Alessio, Dave Eggers, Amy Guth, Robin Hemley, and Joe Meno.

The Illini Union Bookstore (IUB) and University of Illinois at Chicago Library (UIC) will be hosting author signings in the University of Illinois tent as well.

Authors hosted by the IUB will include: 9L friend, Mike Czyzniejewski (June 6, 11am), Kevin Davis (June 6, 2pm), Bayo Ojikuto (June 7, 11am), Nnedi Okorafor (June 7, 12pm), Alice B. McGinty (June 7, 2pm), and Orville Vernon Burton (June 7, 4pm).

UIC will be hosting Eileen Tanner and Gary Buslik on June 7 at 12:30pm.

The Lit Fest hours are 10am to 6pm. Admission is free. If you're in Chicago, stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New Books!

Here are some new books from 9L contributors:

Spring/Summer 09 fiction contributor, Margot Livsey’s latest book, The House on Fortune Street, is now available in paperback. More about Margot Livsey and the book can be found at HarperCollins.

"The most durable structure here, in fact, is not a house but the novel itself, whose design unites so seamlessly with its intentions that one wants to admire it from every angle.” - The Washington Post

Ben George (CNF, Spring/Summer 07) edited an anthology about fatherhood called The Book of Dads. The collection also features essays from other 9L contributors, Steve Almond (Spring/Summer 04, Spring/Summer 05, Fall/Winter 07) and Brock Clarke (Fall/Winter 06).

"These essays speak to us, as parents and children, in a language rich with humanity and wisdom." - Ken Kalfus

Poetry Contributor, Lytton Smith’s (Fall/Winter 2006) collection of poetry, The All-Purpose Magical Tent was the winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize and is published by Nightboat Books.

"Smith's sequences have themes and forms rather than gimmicks, relying on imagination rather than on any biographical facts. His powers ought to help this book, and its author, last." – Publishers Weekly.

John Haskell's (Fiction, Fall/Winter 04) new book, Out of My Skin, is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

"In his excellent third book, Haskell gets into the head of a lonely writer whose shot at a second chance hinges, strangely and brilliantly, on an impersonation of an impersonation of Steve Martin...It's an odd world, and certainly one worth entering." - Publishers Weekly

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Short Story Month--Roy Kesey

When I think of Roy Kesey's imagination I see an old battered leather suitcase, nearly covered with overlapping oval decals that advertise whatever city or country has been visited--look, there's Big Ben, there's the Eiffel Tower, there's Victoria Falls. The image of this suitcase may capture the way Roy's mind works, I think, but also how your own mind will look after reading a raft of his stories. The fellow seems to effortlessly travel everywhere and into anyone he chooses, ignoring whatever literary checkpoint or border crossing he may come upon.

Though I'd seen Roy Kesey's name here and there in the table of contents of various literary magazines, the first story of his I read, "Fontanel," was one he sent to Ninth Letter, which came in an envelope postmarked with some very cool stamps from China. Within a couple pages I knew he wasn't going to disappoint me, that his high-wire act was going to continue successfully right to the last word. Because Roy's cover letter stated that this was a multiple submission, when I finished reading I immediately called Jodee Stanley, who'd already read the story, and I proposed we accept it right away. Normally, our acceptances come after a long process of reading, counter-reading and discussion among many folks working on the fiction side, but this was one fish I didn't want to slip away. Jodee and I agreed that we couldn't imagine that anyone would object. We were right, and "Fontanel" appeared in our second issue (Fall/Winter 2004).

The story is a brilliant set of verbal photographic collages following the course of events as a young Chilean couple make their way to Clínica las Condes, "the finest hospital in Santiago," preparing for the eventual birth of their second child. The reader quickly wonders, however, Who is taking these photos that the narrative voice describes? The various shots are too disparate for any one person to accomplish, and then these photos take on a kind of three-dimensionality, one that balloons inward, not outward. We learn the nurse loves the obstetrician, who, it turns out, only loves himself, that the pediatrician loves everyone in sight whenever he attends a birth, we learn secrets of private behavior that are temporarily being held in check. And on we move closer to the birth of the couple's son, the moment's arrival described as the point when "things end and begin." And so the story wraps up, giving flashes of everyone we've seen before, including the grandmother at home comforting the couple's first child, the cabbie who drove them to the hospital, the maternity staff and their sexual secrets, and the accidental nick of a vein and some pooling blood that points to another story after this story ends, this story that, in ending, also begins.

We went on to publish another marvelous story by Roy Kesey, "Nipparpoq," in our sixth issue (Fall/Winter 2006-2007), which recounts the troubles of an Inuit hunter disastrously down on his luck--another sterling example of his border crossing expertise. Since I'm on the subject, though this is a post for Short Story Month, I can't help recommending Roy's novella, Nothing in the World, in which he effortlessly inhabits the life of a young Croat conscript fighting in the Balkan Wars. How does he do this?

"Fontanel" appears in Roy's first short story collection, aptly titled All Over, and this collection also includes the story "Wait," chosen by Stephen King for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2007. "Wait" initially plops us into a situation we're familiar with--a flight is delayed, the weather outside the international airport's windows is not promising, connections in other cities vanish in the air. However, days pass, and the flight's hopeful passengers lose hope and yet linger at the gate, watching the fog outside grow, darken, then clear--but never long enough to get a plane off the ground. Antsy factions develop along lines of nationality, age, gender, race, nervous angry energy that briefly gets transformed into a hastily organized fashion show, then a mini-Olympics, and as this long wait extends for weeks we come to know a Bulgarian poet struggling with the crossword puzzle: a Mongolian boy, expert at checkers; a Canadian accountant; and a Ghanaian beauty on the lam from a jealous warlord. All hell eventually breaks loose, as well as an unlikely escape from the world of this story--so much like the mess of the world we know--lifting off in a graceful goodbye, defying borders, like so much of Roy Kesey's work.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Short Story Month - Katherine Vaz

One of the most striking achievements of Katherine Vaz’s stories is how they are firmly rooted in reality and so otherworldly at the same time. Religion and ritual is key to most of her stories. The rituals in "My Bones Here Waiting for Yours," from her short story collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes, is not religious in the most obvious form of that word. Ritual in this story is very personal and heartbreaking. Mary Smith's daughter, Delilah, died in an avalanche seventeen years ago at the Devils Postpile and every year Mary is photographed standing in the spot where the snow patrol found her daughter's body. She wears the same outfit every year, a turquoise business suit and high heels. These are the same clothes she wears to her job as a real estate agent. Mary thinks, “it is no longer available to me, the simple act of matching right time, right place, and right clothing.” Clothing and how she feels about it conveys her sense of loss so perfectly. One of the most telling things about Mary is how she feels about her name. She feels that it is “so ordinary that it suggests the exotic.” The story continues to push the idea of the ordinary being exotic.

Delilah was a synesthete. Mary first noticed the condition when her daughter was in the third grade, “I wrote G-L-A-S-S, and she said, ‘Red with spots, white, something like those bugs that live under bricks, pink, pink. She told me she saw colors when people spoke. They spilled from everyone’s mouth…”. Mary relates the frustration and difficulty of living with the condition (Delilah won’t drink milk because it is blue noise), but what an amazing image – color spilling from mouths. As we are given more example of how Delilah perceived the world, not only do we learn more about her, we also see how Vaz can take a harsh reality and turn it into art.

The story gets its title because of a phrase written above the door of The Chapel of Bones, which is made from the bones of monks, in Alentejo, Portugal. The phrase is, “Our Bones Here Are Waiting for Yours.” Vaz does something interesting by including photographs of the chapel in this part of the story. The photographs are not replacements for a narrative description. Rather they close the gap between reality and fiction.

She does something similar in “The Knife Longs for the Ruby,” which is also in Our Lady of the Artichokes and was originally published in Ninth Letter's first issue (Spring/Summer 04). The story has a note that says, “this work of fiction is inspired by the true story of a nineteenth-century statue known as one of the most touching images of Christ in the world.” This throws us right into the world of the story as we are introduced to Tónio, the sculptor of the statue, and Father Jamie. The story explores their relationship and all that has led them to the present of the story as it alternates between their two narratives.

Father Jamie gets “drunk exactly one night a week, and he did it beautifully, falling into the sparkling glass of firewater and emerging out the other end, clarified and wounded.” A wonderful image. He tells Tónio that he restricts his drinking or else he would be drunk all the time. Through the course of the story we learn of the loss he suffered years ago. Tónio’s vice is having sex with prostitutes in town, “but what did women look like in during the day? Why he never tried to find out.” He carries a machete with him as he walks home and cuts his leg. This allows us to see that the two men take care of each other. Tónio cares for Father Jamie when he is drunk and Father Jamie does the same when Tónio is injured. Their relationship is complicated because Tónio is Father Jamie’s servant. In fact, their relationship is so complex that I cannot do it justice in the space here.

The creation of art means freedom in this story. Tónio seeks freedom by sculpting the statue because “it was fashionable now for nobles to release their slaves for artistic feats.” Teresa Silva is freed for stuffing “a thousand cuttlefish with a mix of shrimps’ eyes, and the guests of her master had collapsed into a type of ecstasy.” Teresa is wounded by a past relationship with a writer and Tónio wants to help her recover by creating a new piece of art.

As with the previous story, the characters here are richly written. None of Vaz’s characters allow themselves to be defined by one trait or one event in their lives. They are flawed and truly human. Adding historic elements only makes them more alive. The writing is visceral, so we feel Mary’s anguish over the death of her daughter and when Father Jamie is slashed with a shard of glass across his bare chest. Katherine Vaz wonderfully blurs the line between reality and art, which makes for a deeply rewarding reading experience.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Short Story Month - Jill Summers

Jill Summers writes stories that are meant to be heard. Her authorial voice is that of a true storyteller, spinning lovely, touching, whimsical tales that carry the reader away. She has performed many audio versions of her work, and it’s clear that her remarkable writing talent is particularly well suited to this format; but even when read on the page, her stories convey the sense of being listened to, rather than read—they are charming, musical, and completely engaging. I often have a sense of nostalgia when reading Summers’s work, as though I’m sitting up close to an old Philco radio, captivated by the stories and voices of her characters.

Cohabitation,” a story published in Ninth Letter’s Fall/Winter 2007-8 issue, is a series of five vignettes, inspired by radio plays, about the tenants in a Chicago graystone apartment building who touch each others lives only tangentially, but whose lives are connected by interwoven themes of loneliness and longing. The first piece tells of the brief passionate lives of Roberto and Rosa, two ants (yes, ants) whose love blooms and dies in a split second. The ants are part of a colony infesting the apartment of Apricot Wensleydale, a vivacious widow disgruntled by the grandmotherly life she’s been relegated to. As Apricot plans her escape, in the apartment overhead a young couple struggles with the pressures of sharing physical and emotional space; meanwhile, the owner of the building, a coarse and careless man, unwittingly shares his life with a thoughtful entity who yearns to reach a higher state of being. And in the final, most beautiful and poignant section, the building’s caretaker falls in love with the sad gentle ghost who lives there, and selflessly helps her find a way to move on. In each of these stories, the characters live and breathe, flush with life and vivid in the reader’s mind—we can see and hear them so distinctly it’s as good, or better, than watching them on stage or screen.

In “Diagnosis of Sadness,” available as a downloadable mini-book from Featherproof Books, Summers turns her talents to a more concentrated consideration of sadness—or Sadness, as it is referred to in “medical” terms. Excerpts from a health pamphlet discussing the diagnosis and treatment of Sadness as a medical condition are interwoven with the curious tale of a tragic freak accident witnessed by passengers on an El train—one passenger, Agnes, observing the death happening below her while contemplating the Sadness pamphlet and the diagnosis of her doctors. Deftly combining pathos and humor, Summers illustrates how the condition of sadness is universal, while at the same time being heartbreakingly particular to each person’s experience.

Jill Summers is a wonderful writer, but beyond that she is an extraordinary artist—her narratives refuse to be confined to text and paper. You will find renditions of her works in image, sound, and text, and in many instances multiple iterations of a single work are available, giving her audience the opportunity for a uniquely layered experience. Summers’s work represents the best of what Ninth Letter strives for—to explore the many ways we experience narrative art while maintaining a heartfelt emotional core.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Story Month - B.R. Smith

Reality + Magic = Art. Thrity Umrigar wrote this on the board during a workshop I took with her a few years ago. I don’t remember if she attributed this to a source or if it is simply something she concocted. Either way it has stuck with me. B.R. Smith’s stories have a lot of magic – that indefinable element that elevates a story from the mundane to the sublime - to go with the lonely, confusing realities of his characters.

In “The Cortege” (Mississippi Review, vol. 36, no. 3), the story begins with the narrator and his sister discovering their father has gone missing from his apartment. The elderly father doesn’t leave a note or any clue of where he has gone; rather he has left a man made out of gold ribbon. He leaves his children an approximation of a man, not the real thing. The issue of real vs. fake becomes very important to the story. As the characters search for their father, the narrator thinks he sees him around town. When the narrator follows the man into a Laundromat, it turns out the man the narrator thought he saw isn’t there at all. In fact, every time the narrator thinks he sees his father, it turns out not ob e him. Early in the story it is easy to discount this confusion as caused by the stress of the situation. However, as the story progresses and on subsequent rereads, it becomes clear that much more is at work for the narrator. In many ways, the narrator is fed up with reality. At one point the narrator says, “there was this whole world we weren’t a part of, a whole imaginary world.” He says this of his father, but it really applies more to him.

The narrator is disconnecting from the actual to make things as he wants them to be. He thinks about a theatre playing a movie about hermaphroditic angels. The movie is about an angel that has fallen to earth and needs to be saved by her friends. The narrator relates to this character, “I’d gone to the theatre alone and found it difficult to pretend that I wasn’t this angel, that I wasn’t in need of rescue.” The narrator longs for connection, so when a man touches the back of his head after a viewing of the film the narrator follows him to his car. He watches the man and concocts a life for him. “I thought maybe he could take me there, that he could give me something. It didn’t matter what. It could have been anything. He could have been anyone.” There is a very interesting tension in wanting to find connection to a fantasized version of someone. The narrator also wants to be someone else. One of the very first things we learn about him as he watches his sister walk around the apartment is “….when I was alone I could never picture her face without looking in a mirror and imagining myself as a girl.” This raises the question of identity. Not only gender identity, but just identity in general. He struggles with who he is and also with recognizing who others are as well. He feels something is amiss. Several times throughout the story the narrator reestablishes that the story is taking place in Philadelphia. This repetition is essential because it allows him to ground himself and shows his struggle with reality. This self-awareness is shown again when he has difficulty feeling anything over the loss of his father, “I was unhappy about not being unhappy.” Through the course of the story, the narrator feels on the cusp of change, but he doesn’t quite know how to get there.

“The Cortege” is a very intimate story with the narrator spending most of the time with his sister in various enclosed spaces. However, at the same time it feels epic. I attribute this to the characters being so alive on the page that it opens the story up in surprising and satisfying ways.

The same could be said for another B.R. Smith story “The Countrymen” published in Ninth Letter's vol 5, no. 2 issue. The story is set during the Haitian Revolution in 1798, which is, of course, very different from modern day Philadelphia. Yet, all the elements that make “The Cortege” so enjoyable to read – lush language and engaging characters struggling with identity - are present here as well.

In “The Countrymen,” Petri is a Haitian solider under the command of General Dessalines. It starts with this beautifully visceral sentence. “It’s when the blood moves over the battlefield that I’m in and out of love, swooning, and cowardly, wanting to run while my sword feels its way around their guts, searching, keening when it hits bone, the ocean air like a whip across the plain, and me turning sideways, looking out of politesse, the bile rising to my throat.” This is perhaps one of my favorite things about this story, the contrast between the beauty of the language and the harsh realities of battle.

Very early in the story it is revealed that Petri and Dessalines are lovers. Sort of. Physically they are. However, psychologically it is more complex. Petri can be inhabited by a woman, Guillemette, “…my eyes roll in my head when I feel the possession coming, and when I look to Dessalines he’s already beside me, his voice impatient, saying her name like a question to see if she’s here, prodding me toward sleep as I become her.” The General whispers her name and Petri says he is still himself. Dessalines tells him that he’s another person now. The next sentence is, “and then I am.” It is never clear if this is an actual possession or if Petri pretends to be this woman to please Dessalines. Either feels possible, which makes the story more complex and exciting. We are given enough information to support the possession side of the argument. Petri remembers that his mother also had the ability to channel spirits and like her, he doesn’t remember what happens during that time.

Ultimately the concern of the reality of the possession is secondary to Petri’s caring for Dessalines. After taking on the guise of Guillemette, Petri asks The General what she does for him. They read and dance. Petri imagines this, “I try to place myself in the scene, held without waiting, knowing I’m his.” Later when things go badly for Dessalines, Petri’s love for him will remain.

Rereading B.R. Smith’s stories are a must. They are so layered that the details become richer with meaning on each read. B.R. Smith takes issues of identity, transformation and abandonment, combines them with gorgeous sentences and fascinating characters to make remarkable, haunting stories.